"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why Truth Is Rare In Political Campaigns

In an article in the New York Times (11.6.12) Kevin Kruse writes about how the standards for truth in politics have progressively eroded over time, and now are at what many consider the nadir of the cycle. George Romney has frequently been accused of distorting the truth, lying, or even inventing alternate truths.  Funny thing is, such accusations never seem to bother him.  He simply bats them away like annoying flies and continues to come up with even more and better whoppers.

Kruse makes it clear that scurrilous attacks from the campaign stump are by no means new.  In fact the ad hominem cutting and slicing that took place in the 19th Century would make most people today blush and then blanch at the outrageousness of the offense.  There was no sweetness and light in the election of 1800 between Jefferson and Adams:

Jefferson was accused of being pro-French and running a “Congo harem” out of Monticello. Adams was accused of conspiring to marry his daughter off to the British king’s family, in order to establish a royal bloodline. Also, foes said he had smuggled British prostitutes across the Atlantic to serve his needs. (Joanna Weiss, Boston Globe, 10.9.12)

In the election of 1828 Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams traded scandalous personal attacks:

In 1828 Andrew Jackson wanted desperately to displace the incumbent John Quincy Adams, and the campaign waged between the two men may have been the nastiest and dirtiest in American history. Before it was over, the frontiersman was accused of adultery and murder, and the upright New Englander was literally called a pimp.

By the time the votes were cast, both men would have wild stories circulated about their pasts, with lurid charges of murder, adultery, and procuring of women being plastered across the pages of partisan newspapers.

The supporters of Andrew Jackson began spreading a rumor that Adams, while serving as American ambassador to Russia, had procured an American girl for the sexual services of the Russian czar. The attack was no doubt baseless, but the Jacksonians delighted in it, even calling Adams a “pimp” and claiming that procuring women explained his great success as a diplomat.  (Robert McNamara, About.com 19th Century History

The election of 1884 was not much different and Grover Cleveland and James Blaine traded insults, rumor, and innuendo about sex, duplicity, paternity, and sin.

Kruse makes the argument that things have gotten far worse for a number of reasons, especially since 1970.  First, he says, is “the overall decline in respect for institutions and professionals of all kinds, from scientists and lawyers to journalists and civil servants”.

Second are changes in media regulation and ownership.  The old ‘Fairness Doctrine’ which required all media outlets to present a balanced view of every political issue, was jettisoned by the Federal Communications Commission, a move that helped spawn virulently one-sided talk radio.

A third trend developed as political operatives realized they had more room to stretch the truth. In 2004, an aide to President George W. Bush dismissed a journalist for being part of a “reality-based community” of people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.”

And finally:

Most news organizations (with notable exceptions) abandoned their roles as political referees. Many resorted to an atrophied style that resembled stenography more than journalism, presenting all claims as equally valid. Fact checking, once a foundation for all reporting, was now deemed the province of a specialized few.

While all these arguments have merits, I feel that the ‘truth crisis’ has more to do with image, public credulousness, and the Internet.  Mitt Romney understands that his base only cares about fundamental values – God, family, and liberty - and the small government, private enterprise, and financial engines of capitalism which can make these values universal. Most voters among this Republican base made up their minds long ago, before any of the competing claims about health care, tax reform, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They knew that Romney stood for their principles, and that was enough. Whether he distorted the truth or not was irrelevant; and cries of “foul!” were just liberal sour grapes.

Secondly, the Internet has facilitated the untrammelled flow of every possible conspiracy theory imaginable, and the most frighteningly tangible is that concerning the nationality and patriotism of Barack Obama. Site after site invents facts, creates fictitious journals and journalists, and spins fantasy, lies, and pandering suggestions in unbelievably perverse ways. 

Given an already rock-solid fundamental belief that Romney stands for Christian values, capitalism, and freedom; and add to it the poisonous belief that Obama is the Antichrist, no one cares if Romney plays fast and loose with the truth.  Only liberals care, and as Romney correctly observed in his gotcha moment caught on video – they aren’t going to vote for me anyway.

Romney understands all this quite well.  He knows that if he keeps repeating the same mantra, and if he manages his personal and screen performance like a Hollywood producer, he can get away with any cockamamie fact that he chooses to invent.  His narrative has nothing to do with the wonky world of ‘progressives’ who can’t for the life of them come up with a consistent, clear, and image-worthy public stance.  “But what do the Democrats stand for?”, an undecided voter might ask.  The answer will always come out garbled. “ We stand for global warming, welfare…well, not exactly welfare but expanded safety nets or more precisely reforming blah-blah…and reduction in defense spending unless of course it is necessary to fight just wars which we define as blah-blah…”

To be sure, the Obama campaign has certainly had its own share of dissembling and distortion, including about Mr. Romney’s positions on abortion and foreign aid. But nothing in it — or in past campaigns, for that matter — has equaled the efforts of the Romney campaign in this realm. Its fundamental disdain for facts is something wholly new.

Well, it’s time for ‘progressives’ to get over it.  Obama may still win the election (I am writing this at 6am EST of Election Day); but if Democrats are to compete successfully in coming years, they have to take a lesson from the Romney Team – give the public what they want; translate these simple desires into image, rhetoric, and repetition; and above all, don’t get hung up, for God’s sake on truth.

The voters, of course, may well recoil against these cynical manipulations at the polls. But win or lose, the Romney campaign has placed a big and historic bet on the proposition that facts can be ignored, more or less, with impunity.

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